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Teaching an Automatic Sit at the Door

Posted by Misa Martin, CPDT-KA on 6/5/2016

I was training with a client and her dog the other day and drew out a kind of flow chart to help illustrate the process of teaching the Automatic Sit at the Door. Here’s what that looked like:


Flow chart dog training plan! I don’t know whose beverage that is.

I thought the format would emphasize how the process of teaching the Auto Sit is dependent on being able to easily take a step back when your dog needs you to.  I sketched this out in two versions and was happier with the second (on the right) as the center of the chart, which relates and is connected to every step, states “Go back to practicing with fewer distractions.”  Here’s an explanation of how to teach it!


It’s so great to have a photographer as a Mom.

#1. Teach in short sessions.  In group class and in private sessions, my students work through this exercise in stages. Short, fun stages that are broken up with other movement-based exercises that prevent our dogs from getting bored!  Students also learn how to indicate to their dog that getting up from a control position stops the rewards.  I coach the handlers to freeze and stop feeding - within a short time, the dogs will Sit again to get those rewards happening again!  This point in training is also a good time for me to introduce the concept of the cue as a signal - which brings me back to our topic today.

Teaching a dog to Sit automatically at your door isn’t just a potentially life-saving activity, but is also a mighty convenient, easy to teach behavior - especially once the humans learn that they are simply changing the meaning of a signal for their dog. Our business here involves identifying that signal (standing next to the door and putting our hand on the knob, and the other actions involved with opening a door) and changing its’ meaning from “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!” to “Sit.”


Can my dog hold a control position with distractions? You bet!

I’ll assume at this point that you’ve already taught your dog to sit successfully with distractions. Even if your pup doesn’t hold the position for very long, and even if you can’t get too far away from your dog just yet, you’ll want your dog to have an understanding of Sit until you release her from that position with a release word that you’ve taught such as “Break!” or “Okay!”.  You’ve spent some time rewarding your dog for remaining in a Sit despite those distractions and slowly upping the ante as you see your dog’s understanding of “Sit (or Down) - until further notice” increase.

  1. Prepare training treats; pick a quiet area to train in without many distractions. Using a closet door for this first stage is a wise move as the magnetic lure of a possible walk outside may be too powerful for your dog at this juncture.

  2. Get some Sits going at your location. Reward your pup for sitting at this new place, and don’t forget to practice releasing your dog from the Sit during this session, too.


3. Position yourself at your door so that you’ve got one hand for the distribution of treats and for giving the hand signal for Sit, keeping your other hand free. Now, cue your dog to Sit - as he does, simultaneously touch the doorknob and - if your dog is still sitting - feed your dog. If your dog gets up, take your hand off the doorknob and wait for a Sit. Repeat this a few times - your dog should be correct 80% of the time before you move on. (Bob Bailey)

4. “My dog got up!” Just freeze. Try to not reprimand, scold, or “eh-eh!”.  Just take your hand off the doorknob and freeze in position until your dog Sits again. Then, go right back to reinforcing that Sit as you rest your hand on the door. I don’t fret when my dog makes this mistake - it’s part of the learning process, and my clear feedback will get this mistake to go away.

5. Proof it. Proofing means, “Add in more distractions.” I love this part of teaching the Stay behavior because my students tend to get very creative! They hop around on one foot, sing, gesticulate, and do all kinds of nutty things to test their dog’s understanding of Sit and Stay.  In this process, a logical next step would be to try rattling the doorknob to see if that makes your dog get up. If she does, follow the directions at #4. If not, repeat this bit and then take a brain break with your dog if you haven't yet.

6. Start to open the door and feed for a stable Sit. If I were to make a flip book animation of your actions as you train, you would have a great visual of the breakdown of each bit. Think of the actions you’re training as all being dependent on your dog’s Sit - Reaching for the doorknob, rattling it, then finally starting to open the door.  Trainers call this “Splitting” a behavior or group of behaviors (as opposed to “Lumping”, where the trainer tries to accomplish a whole lot of these actions all at once)

7. Keep on proofing and feeding for success. If the dog gets up, close the door right away!  Wait for the Sit, then start again. You can use your “Break!” or release word any time - try to time the release well, so that your dog is firmly sitting as you give the cue. Proofing at this stage includes : changing locations (keep your dog on leash to keep her safe when you start practicing at a door that leads to the outdoors!) Also - shifting your body around (“Can you hold a Sit even though I’m starting to walk out the door?”)

8. Release your dog and go for a walk! The element of using this great “life reward” for your new Automatic Sit is great to use - it’s a functional, positive consequence for your dog’s behavior. Remember : it never hurts to go through this routine with food rewards every once in a while to maintain the behavior.

Have fun with your dog!

Misa Martin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Years of attending agility seminars, workshops, seminars and camps with her first dog led to the beginning of her professional dog training career as a PetSmart Trainer in 2008. In addition to joining Port Chester Obedience Training Club's Family Manners program, Misa is a staff trainer at the Mount Vernon Humane Society, active with Pets Alive Westchester as a group class instructor and consultant for training and behavior issues, and a volunteer for the Walden Humane Society's education program. Misa owns Hudson Valley Dog Trainer, providing reward-based training to private clients. Through her knowledge, experience, and sense of humor, Misa encourages students to approach dog training as a team effort, where students learn as much from their dogs as dogs learn from their "parents," making training fun for humans and dogs alike! Misa can be reached at [email protected]


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